The visceral sex and violence that singled out Chicago’s small, acclaimed Profiles Theatre turned out to be so genuinely abusive to its cast in shows such as “Killer Joe” that a sensational 2016 exposé quickly led to the company’s demise.
But, a year earlier, actress Lori Myers reacted to Facebook posts by harassed colleagues not yet naming names. “What the hell?” she thought, correctly guessing the culprit. “Why is this theater still running?”
Myers and fellow performer Laura T. Fisher organized a meeting that sparked Not in Our House, a set of principles drawing increasing national interest, as arts and entertainment scandals (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Levine, Peter Martins) propel #MeToo.
“Business is booming,” deadpans Fisher, who has spoken about Not in Our House at Washington’s Arena Stage, listened at the Public Theater’s “(Mis)Conduct” town hall in New York this month and consulted across the country. “Not that it’s a business,” she says of the volunteer effort, which has involved hundreds of Chicagoans.
Fisher and Myers responded to what they and so many other insiders knew by methodically creating a 30-page working document any company can sign on to — guidance in how to create safe working environments, what to do if an actor gets too physical onstage, or if a director suggests a cast member should go home with him (or her) to work on “chemistry.”
“That is not hyperbolic,” Fisher says of that example. Her goal: “Can we make a document so a young person or parent can read it and say: I see how this should go.”
Some of the definitions and procedures in the freely available Chicago Theatre Standards echo the exhaustive Actors’ Equity Association rule book (which has no teeth for non-Equity actors). Other were based on experience and new recommendations.
One pivotal component is talking about the guidelines for at least 30 minutes during the first rehearsal, making clear the company’s commitment to safety and open communication. Another is the election of a non-Equity deputy, a cast member trusted by the ensemble to field confidential complaints and follow a recommended “concern resolution path.”
“We followed the guidelines pretty much to the letter,” says Amy Szerlong, co-artistic director of Stage Left Theatre, one of 20 “pilot” troupes testing the standards last season. “Everyone took it seriously, was open and listening and on board. We have a slightly less formal first rehearsal conversation now, and we make the standards available to everyone. And we make it clear we have a no tolerance policy.”
The website includes a “Support Group Resources” page with contacts for therapists, clinics, counseling organizations and social workers prepared to work with the artistic community. When conflicts arise, the aim is to mentor first and then fire the offender if mentoring fails. The tone is positive, not accusatory, embracing the idea of “calling in” rather than “calling out.”
“No one is forced to use the document, or shamed for not adopting it,” the standards declare. The idea is not to pasteurize theater, especially in the rough-and-tumble Chicago scene.
“We pride ourselves in You’ve gotta fling that chair and it’s gotta be real!” says Myers, who, like Fisher, has been an Equity actor for decades. Fisher says a way to keep performances intense yet professional is to reassert even staged sex as “choreography,” just as fights are choreographed by specialists.
Other pre-#Me Too efforts to combat intimidation and sexual harassment include a Statement of Principle posted in 2015 by Julia Jordan and the Lilly Awards (for women in theater) in coordination with Dramatists Guild of America, Actors’ Equity, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society; that document has hundreds of signatories. Post-Weinstein, Actors’ Equity released a statement reasserting the expectation of safe workplaces and reporting offenders.
None of these efforts create governing bodies. Self-policing, Myers says, “is our biggest problem. It’s an honor system.” But the swift current of #Me Too, she adds, means “a lot of chickens are coming home to roost.”
Fisher did not recruit the support of big theaters in crafting the document. “Small theaters need it the most,” she says. “They have the least support, and they have the fewest institutional barriers to change. And I didn’t want getting inside larger institutions to be a barrier to the project. But large theaters are starting to look at the document and say it looks useful to them.”
So are other theater communities, including Washington, which is developing its own chapter and calling it Not in Our House DC. Amy Austin, president and chief executive of the service organization Theatre Washington, is among the groups working on a D.C.-driven document. Theatre Washington is strictly an ally: “It’s perfect for us to be working on, but it has to come out of the community. It shouldn’t be us wagging our finger,” Austin says.
Have any theaters signed on? “We’re not ready for that yet,” says Austin, who expects the group to make a presentation in the new year.
Austin likes that the standards are “elastic.” Myers and Fisher both say that’s the point.
“It’s a tool for self-government, not a policing body,” Fisher says. “We can’t fix everything. But we can create an industry that is simply less hospitable to people who seek to abuse and take advantage. They might not want to come around so much.”